Friday, March 23, 2007

the wheel of time

last night we watched a werner herzog documentary called "the wheel of time". werner herzog is the documentary filmmaker who also produced "grizzly man", another fantastic doc. this particular film follows the holy buddhist kalachakra initiation. it was breath-taking, sombre, awe-inspiring, and visually and conceptually stunning.

unlike other documentary directors, herzog very much inserts himself and his voice (literally, as the narrator) into this film. what results is an aesthetic that bridges the (imagined, imo) divide we construct between "documentaries" and "feature films". it seems he has a very particular idea on where he wants the film to go, and through his visual and narrative framing of the subject, he produces a tighter, more thematically unified end product.

the kalashakra initiation is the largest buddhist ritual to promote peace and tolerance, and is held in bodh gaya, india. hundreds of thousands of buddhists make the pilgrimage to bodh gaya, where the ritual takes place near the tree where the sacred buddha first found enlightenment. it took one man, THREE YEARS to get to the site. he made the journey not by walking, but through a painstaking series of forehead-to-ground genuflections, which resulted in calcified nodes on his wrists, a wound that would not heal on his forehead (a result of millions of contact with the ground that he trod). this particular monk came from an area so remote, that he had to be translated twice. the idea of that removal of transliteration quite literally made me catch my breath with its conceptual dimensions.

the ritual culminates in the creation of the sand mandala, known as the wheel of time, made by the highest order of buddhists. the elaborate creation is made entirely of grains of sand. at the end of the ceremony, that gorgeous product of excruciating, assiduous hours of labour is systematically and methodically destroyed by his holiness the dalai lama himself, in a symbol that represents the impermanence of all creations. watching him run his hands through the mandala, bisecting the intricate and dense beauty of the creation, was an experience at once completely fitting and intensely jarring.

ever since i first read about the romantic sublime, it has been a concept that held great resonance to me, subtly influencing a paradigmatic shift in the way i view the world and my own place in it. the romantic poets (wordsworth, blake - my favorite -, coleridge et al) when faced with the stark and unrelenting beauty of a natural formation, like a mountain, enter a state they called the sublime, a moment when the limits of one's humanity is presented in all its awesome totality, in our inability to completely comprehend the vastness and entirety of this natural formation. at the same time, as our imagination nears its limits as it struggles vainly to grasp the enormity of the universe that surrounds us, the very presentness of its articulation in us and the world that surrounds us, our humanity is reaffirmed in all its blinding glory.

it is difficult for me to understand religious faith, especially in its more insidious, western articulations, imbricated as it is with war, conservatism, and fascist power. this film manages to capture the stunning vastness of belief - the quiet, internal stoicism of the faithful - a belief that seems implicated in the very materiality of the world that surrounds us. perhaps i have a tendency to romanticize buddhism (i think i far as leaders go, the dalai lama is a heck of a lot cuter and jollier than the pope), but in the concept of enlightenment and the interconnectivity of life i can hear a very convincing, persuasive, and enticing call.

it was one of those rare films that presents a world, contemporaneous to mine, but removed by unfathomable distance. the film's ability to draw my attention to the coexistence of these disparate realities created a sublime moment for me, a moment of harrowing and poignant humanity.

the long and short of it is: go see it.

in a less ethereal vein, tonight for dinner (take-out night) we're having jean's vegetarian kitchen. pad thai, some kind of red curry, and another noodle dish. yum.


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